natural methods

Is it always lawful to use natural methods to regulate birth?

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I regulate my birth rate with my husband using natural methods. We only have one child and have not decided to have another (for reasons I sincerely consider unimportant). However, this has been bothering me for some time. Although I know that with the use of natural methods we are respecting God’s law, it also seems to me that we only respecting it in part. Is what we are doing a sin?


The basis of natural methods is their ability to determine the periods of a woman’s fertility and infertility. By their moral object they are to be considered, therefore, indifferent, and even provided with ‘a certain positive goodness’ insofar as, in themselves, they reveal to us the wisdom of the divine plan about marriage.

However, these methods can be used with an anti-procreative mentality. I insist that they, in and of themselves, are not contraceptive but non-contraceptive; the malice of the act comes, then, from the intention and from the circumstances in which they are practiced. Now, “a morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together. An evil end corrupts the action, even if the object is good in itself” [1].

Pope John Paul II states this very clearly: “In the current way of thinking it often happens that the “method,” detached from the ethical dimension proper to it, is put into practice in a merely functional and even utilitarian way. By separating the ‘natural method’ from the ethical dimension, one fails to perceive the difference between it and other “methods” (artificial means), and comes to speak of it as if it were only a different form of contraception” [2].

Even before he was elected Pope, Karol Wojtyla had written: “We tend to approach ‘the natural method’ and ‘artificial methods’ from the same point of view, to derive them from the same utilitarian premises. Looked at like this, the natural method is just another means to ensure the maximum pleasure, differing from artificial methods only in the direction it takes.” [3].

In 1984 he returned to the same question: “For this knowledge and the methods connected with it can also be used for purposes which are morally illicit. It is on this point that the meeting with ethics and theology must take place.” [4].

The use of natural methods can thus be perverted, either because the circumstances in which they are practiced are disordered, or because the end pursued is evil.

1. Disordered Circumstances

First of all, it is an abuse of the methods to use them outside of the framework of a legitimate marriage: it is only licit to responsibly regulate paternity-maternity where it is legitimate to perform conjugal acts, and this only takes place in a true marriage. When it comes to ‘de facto’ unions, premarital relations, civil marriages, remarried divorcees, etc., the main problem is not the methods by which children are spaced or avoided, but that all sexual relations are in themselves illegitimate and gravely sinful.

When speaking of a legitimate marriage, all those that respond to selfish criteria, unjustified fears, distrust in Divine Providence, considering children as a burden, etc., are invalid circumstantial motives. In this regard, Pope John Paul II says: “spouses who resort to natural fertility regulation may lack valid reasons” [5]. And also: “Recourse to ‘infertile periods’ in conjugal cohabitation can be a source of abuse if spouses thus try to evade procreation without justifiable reasons, lowering it below the morally just level of births in their family” [6].

2. The Disordered End

Natural methods are also distorted in their ‘essential truth’ when they are assumed within a will that is anti-life. This takes place when the intention is to dissociate the two meanings of the conjugal act: union is desired while all possibility of procreation is rejected inwardly. The possibility of spouses having such an intention was even recognized by an author (not always faithful to the moral teaching of the magisterium) who wrote, “If periodic continence is practiced simply because one does not want to collaborate with God in the propagation of life nor in the increase of the mystical body of Christ, or because one feels a fear of sacrifice, or because one holds children in contempt, or because one lacks confidence in Divine Providence, or judges that life is not worth living, the scrupulousness to count the days ‘without danger’ will seize the soul, and gradually that preoccupation will lead it to consider children as a terrible misfortune. It can be said that this is the characteristic mental illness of our time” [7].

The seriousness of this attitude becomes clear if we ask ourselves what would happen in the case of a couple restricting the matrimonial right to sexual acts only to infertile periods (that is, not only deciding to have intercourse in infecund periods, but only giving the right to exercise sexual acts in those periods, thus curtailing the marriage contract). In this case, as Pius XII has already explained, the marriage would be null: “If already in the celebration of the marriage, at least one of the spouses had intended to restrict to the times of sterility the same matrimonial right and not only its use, so that on the other days the other spouse would not even have the right to demand the act, this would imply an essential defect of the matrimonial consent, which would lead to the invalidity of the marriage itself, because the right deriving from a matrimonial contract is a permanent, uninterrupted, and unintermittent right of each of the spouses with respect to the other” [8].

This intention is sometimes clearly manifested when, together with the decision not to have intercourse during periods of fertility, the possibility of abortion is not ruled out in the event of a pregnancy resulting from the improper use of natural methods.

Is abstinence virtuous in these cases? There is no doubt that self-control (and therefore abstinence) will always be a good thing for those who practice it. But as in so many other cases, here too “an added bad intention makes an act evil that, in and of itself, can be good” [9].

Fr. Miguel A. Fuentes, IVE


John Paul II, The Honest Practice of Birth Control (Catechesis of September 5, 1984).

Wojtyla, Karol, Love and Responsibility, Faith and Reason

Fuentes, Miguel, He Made Them Male And Female, IVE Press, New York 2007, chapter VIII.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1755.

[2] John Paul II, General Audience, September 5, 1984, n. 4.

[3] Wojtyla, Karol, Love and Responsibility, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1993, p. 240.

[4] John Paul II, Address to Participants in the International Congress on Marriage, Family, and Fertility, June 8, 1984, n. 3.

[5] John Paul II, General Audience, August 8, 1984, n. 3.

[6] John Paul II, General Audience, September 5, 1984, n. 3.

[7] Häring, B., The Law of Christ, Herder, Barcelona 1973, III, p. 361.

[8] Pius XII, Address to the Congress of the Italian Catholic Union of Obstetrics, October 29, 1951.

[9] Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1753.

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